Stephen Kingsley reveals his recovery from Scottish Cup penalty agony to become a Hearts hero

When Celtic’s Conor Hazard dived to block Stephen Kingsley’s penalty-kick in the 2020 Scottish Cup final, it triggered a resilience still evident to this day in the Hearts defender.

Friday, 20th May 2022, 7:00 am

Failing to convert in the shootout defeat could have turned some supporters against a player just two months into his career at Tynecastle Park. Kingsley defiantly refused to allow that scenario to play out. His reaction exemplified the character which transformed him into a hero.

Consistently strong defending at left-back and, more recently, centre-back endeared him to anyone with lingering doubts. Marauding forward runs and intelligent distribution of the ball showed extra attributes that help set him apart. Then there are those free-kicks.

Kingsley is perhaps the most adept set-piece taker in the country right now, a threat which Rangers will be mindful of at Hampden Park in this weekend’s final. The Hearts player returns to the scene of his supposed “crime” feeling confident having already overwritten the memory of that 2020 disappointment.

His beautifully-angled free-kick high into the Hibs net just a few weeks ago proved to be the winning goal which took Hearts into this year’s final. Kingsley is at the peak of his powers and is fully aware of fans’ adulation. Modestly, he doesn’t indulge in it too much.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play in big games with Hearts,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “The last cup final against Celtic came really quickly after I arrived. That was a huge occasion but without the fans it was different.

“This one will be the last game and it can be the pinnacle of our season. Personally, the occasion will be right up there in my career. You don’t get to cup finals very often. I just hope this one finishes a bit better than the last one.

“We did brilliantly to get back into the game after being 2-0 down in that 2020 final, take it to extra-time and then penalties. It was a massive push but for me, missing the penalty was devastating. We took Celtic all the way and we had to look forward. Personally, and as a team, I feel that’s what we have done.

Hearts defender Stephen Kingsley is focused on the Scottish Cup final.

“This project was always long-term. It wasn’t just getting promoted from the Championship and then consolidating in the Premiership. We had to kick on again, get the European spot and then play at that level. That’s the long-term plan I came here for. It’s great to see it rolling out so soon when I’ve been here less than two years.”

He would be forgiven for feeling obliged to keep atoning for that penalty miss or allowing it to gnaw away at him. “I don’t really think like that. I try not to,” he said.

“Obviously I think about it whenever anyone talks about it. That will always be with you, unfortunately. You need to think about impacting games coming up instead of thinking back. I don’t think that does anyone any good.”

There is more than enough to occupy his mind in any case. Saturday’s final will precede a summer break, then pre-season, the Premiership kick-off and a European group-stage adventure never before undertaken by any Hearts team.

Kingsley is integral to all of it. His sterling form is also attracting attention from the Scotland national coach, Steve Clarke. Again, he won’t indulge too much.

“It’s a chance to impress, isn’t it? Obviously it does put that added bit of pressure on you,” he admitted. “I try to put it to the back of my mind because I can only focus on Hearts games and can’t do anything about the Scotland squad.

“You see how the boys are doing with Scotland and how they are playing just now. It would be brilliant to be a part of it. All season I’ve kept it at the back of my mind and I just need to keep doing that. If I keep focusing on playing well, then you never know.”

There is no better stage than a national cup final to prove his candidacy. “Exactly, that's it. Saturday is massive for the club and for every player.” Particularly when you are a 27-year-old still awaiting the first major medal of your career.

“I don’t have any,” smirked Kingsley. “I’ve got the Scottish Championship medal from last year and that’s it. I was pushing for promotion with Falkirk when I was younger but didn’t quite make it. There was a Ramsden’s Cup final but I wasn't involved.

“It’s an amazing experience for me being here involved in these massive games because I haven’t been a part of it in my career. I’m loving every minute of it.

“Going down south and playing in a Swansea side which successfully battled relegation was huge. You don’t get a trophy for it but it was a big achievement. Then I went to Hull and had to get through a difficult period with injuries.

“There was a lot of uncertainty. I had an issue with my hips but we didn’t really know what it was. When I did play I don't feel I gave the best impression of myself, so it was a tough time.

“Then Covid hit, I was without a club, I’d started a family and it was a whirlwind few months. I worked extremely hard on a training schedule to keep myself going. Coming to Hearts was a great decision for me and my family.

“I scored two goals in my first game against Dundee and that was a real turning point in my career. It showed me all the toil was worth it.”

You might say this is a player used to overcoming adversity. There is no doubt Kingsley’s recovery from that 2020 setback underpins his current heights.

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